Welcome to the Gerland group - Physics of Complex Biosystems

Vision

In physics, interactions between particles follow laws. In biology, interactions between biomolecules serve a function. These very different points of view are beginning to merge as research over the past years has demonstrated how, in some exemplary cases, the laws of physics constrain the implementation of biological function.

We investigate several such cases. For instance, we study how the spatial arrangement and coordination of enzymes determines the efficiency of a multi-step reaction. These spatial arrangements can be natural (as in biomolecular complexes) or engineered with the modern methods of bio-nanotechnology. In both cases, fundamental functional tradeoffs emerge, which must be characterized to understand the optimization of such systems.

Methods from theoretical physics help to describe the functioning of these complex biomolecular systems on a quantitative level, while the biological function leads to new questions, with many parallels in the engineering disciplines. Seen from this perspective, a bacterium is a microscopic bioreactor programmed by evolution to rebuild itself from a variable set of resources and in fluctuating environments. How is this bioreactor programmed? Which strategies enable the control of a diverse set of physico-chemical processes in a way as to robustly produce a highly complex product? Quantitative analysis and modeling facilitates insight into the underlying design principles.

 

 

Recent Research Highlights

A Dual-Sensing Receptor Confers Robust Cellular Homeostasis

Cells have evolved diverse mechanisms that maintain intracellular homeostasis in fluctuating environments. In bacteria, control is often exerted by bifunctional receptors acting as both kinase and phosphatase to regulate gene expression, a design known to provide robustness against noise. Yet how such antagonistic enzymatic activities are balanced as a function of environmental change remains poorly understood. We find that the bifunctional receptor that regulates K+ uptake in Escherichia coli is a dual sensor, which modulates its autokinase and phosphatase activities in response to both extracellular and intracellular K+ concentration. Using mathematical modeling, we show that dual sensing is a superior strategy for ensuring homeostasis when both the supply of and demand for a limiting resource fluctuate. By engineering standards, this molecular control system displays a strikingly high degree of functional integration, providing a reference for the vast numbers of receptors for which the sensing strategy remains elusive.

 

 

Adsorption-Desorption Kinetics of Soft Particles

Adsorption-desorption processes are ubiquitous in physics, chemistry, and biology. Models usually assume hard particles, but within the realm of soft matter physics the adsorbing particles are compressible. A minimal 1D model reveals that softness fundamentally changes the kinetics: Below the desorption time scale, a logarithmic increase of the particle density replaces the usual Rényi jamming plateau, and the subsequent relaxation to equilibrium can be nonmonotonic and much faster than for hard particles. These effects will impact the kinetics of self-assembly and reaction-diffusion processes.

 

 

A New Way of Sensing: Need-Based Activation of Antibiotic Resistance by a Flux-Sensing Mechanism

Sensing of and responding to environmental changes are of vital importance for microbial cells. Consequently, bacteria have evolved a plethora of signaling systems that usually sense biochemical cues either via direct ligand binding, thereby acting as “concentration sensors,” or by responding to downstream effects on bacterial physiology, such as structural damage to the cell. Here, we describe a novel, alternative signaling mechanism that effectively implements a “flux sensor” to regulate antibiotic resistance. more...